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Matrix, The

Entry updated 15 March 2021. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1999). Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Groucho II Film Partnership presents a Silver Pictures production. Directed and written by Andy (now Lilly) Wachowski and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski. Cast includes Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving. 136 minutes. Colour.

A trail of digital clues, pursuits, and dislocations in reality leads hacker Neo (Reeves) to elusive digital-underground figures Trinity (Moss) and Morpheus (Fishburne), who reveal that his life has been spent in the Matrix: a collective Virtual Reality simulation of 1999 in which the human race, some two centuries later, is confined by a global machine intelligence which farms humans as living batteries. Waking into the real world, Neo joins the human resistance, trains his digital Avatar in martial arts, and returns to the Matrix to rescue a captive Morpheus from the machines' software agents led by Agent Smith (Weaving) and face his own messianic calling as "the One" who will liberate humanity from the machines.

Of the cluster of Conceptual Breakthrough films of the late nineties, this long-brewed distillation of the Wachowskis' idiosyncratic melange of grand obsessions was the one to catch the public imagination at the box office and beyond. During the film's production The Truman Show (1998), Dark City (1998), eXistenZ (1999) and The Thirteenth Floor (1999) came and went with their similar themes of awakening into reality out of simulated worlds and lives, but the Wachowskis added to the mix a kinetic action plot, a consistently arresting visual style involving the radically innovative live-action mimesis of Anime techniques, and (crucially) a more youth-oriented address to its themes of dissociative alienation in a constructed world of representation. A more theorized film than its commercially disappointing peers, it makes pointed reference within and without the text to Jean Baudrillard's Simulacres et simulation (1981); though the film's own grasp and investigation of Baudrillard's ideas is not deep, it has served as an anchor for the film's own metaphorization as a common-parlance icon of the variously fabricated worlds inhabited by, and in some measure constructive of, the postmodern subject. In this capacity the film seeded a short-lived burst of philosophy texts and collections taking the film, and to a lesser extent its sequels, as object or jumping-off point for inquiries and protreptics in wider philosophical discourse; some of these titles sold well enough for the formula to be extended to other, somewhat less philosophically responsive films and series. The value of these works, not all of which are merely opportunistic, tends to be limited by their illiteracy in the more intellectually vigorous engagement with the same issues in the written sf tradition.

The film's science-fictional, as opposed to its cinematic and cultural, significance has been as a conduit for major themes of literary sf into the wider public imagination, as well as for the injection into American cinema of distinctively Asian sf sensibilities; Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1995) was a particular influence on its exploration of Cyberpunk's possibilities as a martial arts-based action genre. (A seminal invention here was the action-filming technique dubbed "bullet time", in which computerized motion control is used to capture an action sequence from a moving angle in extreme slow motion.) If its strong production design, iconic not-quite-performances, and startling set pieces do not entirely compensate for lead-hewn dialogue and grating faux profundity, the film nevertheless casts a long shadow, not least in Videogames.

For sequel, the Wachowskis developed an ambitious synchronized franchise rollout comprising two film sequels shot back-to-back – The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) – nine Anime shorts under the umbrella title The Animatrix (2003), and a Videogame, Enter the Matrix (2003); some of the ground was prepared in a series of webcomics published 1999-2004, which were collected with some new material in two volumes as The Matrix Comics (2003-2004). Though none of this material rivalled the intellectual aspirations or impact of the original film, the expansion of the mythos on multiple simultaneous fronts was a significant adventure in creatively managed universe-building, and set a benchmark for franchise coordination which has yet to be surpassed. [NL]

see also: Cinema; Johnny Mnemonic; SF Music; Zoo.

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